“The best index to a person’s character is how he treats people who can’t do him any good, and how he treats people who can’t fight back.” ― Abigail Van Buren

Humorist Dave Barry once wrote that a person who is nice to you but is not nice to a waiter is not a nice person. It is terrifying how we overlook the faults of people whom we otherwise are friends with, or agree with, or admire. Rare is the person who has the integrity to act with respect in all situations.  

It is called character.

This has been written about often and I am certain I can’t add anything to the discussion, but I do wish to at least raise the issue. Because for quite some time and for apparently some time to come people seem to celebrate those with a lack of character. We have seen it on television for many years now with reality shows featuring housewives and bachelors and lost people and even naked lost people. It is in the way they yell at each other, make fun of each other, curse and degrade and ridicule each other. Talk shows have done this for a while as well. Most famously, perhaps, is Jerry Springer where it isn’t unusual to see people throwing chairs at each other after it is revealed Guest A is not the father of Guest B’s baby, and then Guest C comes out to say he is the father, only for the host to confirm the father is actually Guest D. This is entertainment, and it is being played out in communities throughout the country. This is what we’ve become.

It is called lack of character.

I’m not going to speculate on causes; I’m not a sociologist or psychologist or talk-show host. I do want to recall, however, some basic rules we were all taught as kids. This is similar to the bestselling book, Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. Only really, we learned it before then.

  1. Be nice to people. The Golden Rule thing. Do unto others….
  2. Don’t speak poorly about people, especially if that person is not in the room.
  3. Don’t make fun of people.
  4. If you wish to criticize someone’s performance on a certain job, stay focused on the performance and do not attack him or her personally.

A brief interlude to point out that in basic essay writing classes there are things called fallacies. There’s the sweeping and hasty generalizations that any half-brained student should avoid. There’s the deceptive ideas and statistics that any person with character would never lower him or herself to. And there’s the slandering issue, where the writer is required to stick to the issue, and NOT attack the person.

  1. Let the other person talk, or, if arguing, hear them out with the same respect you want in return.
  2. Don’t lie.
  3. And just to reemphasize the essential element of a good character as listed in number one, Be Nice To People.

If our young children violate any one of these basic character traits, we correct them and show them how essential it is in life for vertical homosapians to act like dignified humans if they wish to be taken seriously and respected. It is the core of every preschool, kindergarten, elementary and beyond education, especially at home.

Back to Dave Barry’s restaurant parable: If you’re on a date and your date is being nice to you but then is consistently an asshole to the waiter, most likely any clearly thinking person would not go on a second date with that person. It is only a matter of time before that unkindness and lack of character is turned on you. At some point we step back and look at a person not solely for the aspects we agree with, but for that person as a whole—his or her attitude, actions, demeanor, decorum.

You’re getting ahead of me here, aren’t you?

We have had leaders with whom I disagreed completely, some of whom I thought simply did not have the mental capability to hold a milk jug, let alone a public office. But none of them in my adulthood were foul-mouthed, characterless, embarrassments. And everyone can read this and say, “Of course, Bob! No kidding!”

So the question is this: Why do some bullies get so much support?

I found part of the answer in twenty-seven years of teaching community college: If I say what the students want to hear, they don’t hear anything else. They don’t do research to find out if I am right or wrong, they don’t discuss what I say with others to find out the validity of opposing viewpoints. In the wisdom of Paul Simon, they “heard what they want to hear and disregard the rest.” (da da do da do da da dum, do da do da do da dum)

But we want a person of character to lead us because that person represents who we are as a nation. We want a person of character to negotiate for us because there will be effects months and years down the road we, and others, must answer to. We want a person of character to command the military because we can then trust that decisions will be based upon the desire not to engage in war, and not based upon the desire to “bomb the shit out of them.”

We want a person of character to execute the duties of the executive office because even if we don’t trust that person, we can then at least trust they will act on our behalf with concern for the character of our nation.

Barry’s restaurant again: Even if you completely agree with the other person, admire his or her ideas and ambitions, trust his or her judgement on how to handle difficult situations, if the person lacks character and bullies the waiter and makes fun of him, that person doesn’t show the dignity necessary to be with you, and you shouldn’t lower yourself to such an absence of standards.

I guess I got political. It is a view, after all, from the wilderness.


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